The Bureau of Ethnology was established by an act of the United States Congress on March 3, 1879, but it was largely the personal creation of the geologist and explorer Major John Wesley Powell. His earlier explorations of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon formed the basis of the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. While exploring the area, Powell became alarmed at what he perceived to be the decline of the aboriginal way of life due to rapid depopulation. In a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, he warned that "in a few years, it will be impossible to study…Indians in their primitive condition, except from recorded history" (Hinsley). He urged swift government action; the result of which was the appropriation of $20,000 (20 Stat. 397) to transfer all documents relating to North American Indians from the Department of Interior to the Smithsonian Institution and its Secretary's appointment of Powell as director of the newly established Bureau of Ethnology, a position he held until his death in 1902. In 1897, its name was changed to the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) to underscore the limits of its geographical reaches.
Under Powell, the BAE organized the nation's earliest anthropological field expeditions, in which the characteristics and customs of native North Americans were observed firsthand and documented in official reports. Images of Indian life were captured on photographic glass plate negatives, and their songs on wax cylinder recordings. Histories, vocabularies and myths were gathered, along with material objects excavated from archaeological sites, and brought back to Washington for inclusion in the BAE manuscript library or the United States National Museum.
The fruits of these investigations were disseminated via a series of highly regarded and widely distributed publications, most notably
BAE Annual Reports
Contributions to North American Ethnology
. BAE research staff also responded routinely to inquiries posed by colleagues, government agencies, and the general public on matters ranging from artwork to warfare. Moreover, the BAE prepared exhibits on the various cultural groups it studied not only for the Smithsonian Institution, but also for large expositions held nationwide.
In 1882 Powell, under instruction of Congress, established the Division of Mound Explorations for the purpose of discovering the true origin of earthen mounds found predominately throughout the eastern United States. It was the first of three temporary, yet significant, subunits supported by the Bureau. Cyrus Thomas, head of the Division, published his conclusions in the Bureau's Annual Report of 1894, which is considered to be the last word in the controversy over the mounds' origins. With the publication of Thomas' findings, the Division's work came to a close.
The course of BAE operations remained largely the same under Powell's successors: W.J. McGee (acting director) 1902; William Henry Holmes, 1902-1910; Frederick W. Hodge, 1910-1918; J. Walter Fewkes, 1918-1928; Matthew W. Stirling, 1928-1957; Frank H.H. Roberts, Jr., 1957-1964; and Henry B. Collins (acting director), 1964-1965. However, following a 1903 internal investigation of the Bureau's administrative activities, Smithsonian officials called for a broader scope of ethnological inquiry and greater application of anthropological research methodologies. The BAE responded in 1904 by expanding agency activities to include investigations in Hawaii, the Philippines, and the Caribbean.
The BAE extended its geographical reaches once again, in the 1940s, to include Central and South America. In 1943, the Institute of Social Anthropology (ISA) was established as an independent subunit of the Bureau for the purpose of developing and promoting ethnological research throughout the American Republics. The findings of ISA-sponsored investigations were published in the six volume series, Handbook of South American Indians (BAE Bulletin 143). Julian H. Steward, editor of the Handbook, was appointed director of ISA operations and held the position until 1946 when George M. Foster assumed responsibility. The ISA was absorbed by the Institute of Inter-American Affairs in 1952, thus terminating its relationship with the BAE.
In 1946 the BAE assumed partial administrative control of the recently established River Basin Surveys (RBS), its third and final autonomous subunit. The purpose of the RBS was to salvage and preserve archaeological evidence threatened by post-World War II public works programs, more specifically the rapid construction of dams and reservoirs occurring throughout the country. Excavations conducted under the RBS yielded considerable data on early North American Indian settlements, and subsequent deliberations on this data were published as reports in various BAE Bulletins.
In 1965, the BAE merged administratively with the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Anthropology to form the Office of Anthropology within the United States National Museum (now the Department of Anthropology within the National Museum of Natural History). The BAE manuscript library, also absorbed by the Department of Anthropology, became the foundation of what is today the National Anthropological Archives (NAA).
In its 86 year existence, the BAE played a significant role in the advancement of American anthropology. Its staff included some of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' most distinguished anthropologists, including Jeremiah Curtain, Frank Hamilton Cushing, J.O. Dorsey, Jesse Walter Fewkes, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, Albert H. Gatschet, John Peabody Harrington, John N.B. Hewitt, William Henry Holmes, Ales Hrdlicka, Neil Judd, Francis LaFlesche, Victor and Cosmo Mindeleff, James Mooney, James Pilling, Matilda Coxe Stevenson, Matthew Williams Stirling, William Duncan Strong, and William Sturtevant. The BAE also collaborated with and supported the work of many non-Smithsonian researchers, most notably Franz Boas, Frances Densmore, Gerard Fowke, Garrick Mallery, Washington Matthews, Paul Radin, John Swanton, Cyrus Thomas, and T.T. Waterman, as well as America's earliest field photographers such as Charles Bell, John K. Hillers, Timothy O'Sullivan, and William Dinwiddie. Several of its staff founded the Anthropological Society of Washington in 1880, which later became the American Anthropological Association in 1899. What is more, its seminal research continues to be drawn upon by contemporary anthropologists and government agents through the use of BAE manuscripts now housed in the NAA.
Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology
, 1846-1910. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.
McGee, WJ. "Bureau of American Ethnology."
The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896, The History of its First Half-Century
, pp. 367-396. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1897.
Sturtevant, William. "Why a Bureau of American Ethnology?" Box 286, Functions of the BAE, Series IV: Miscellaneous Administrative Files, 1948-1965, Records of the Bureau of American Ethnology, National Anthropological Archives.